Someone asked me the other day, who is my hero? I had to think for a moment and then say that there is no one who comes to mind who I can call “my hero.”
Then I was thinking what is a hero?
This week I met a hero and his name is Yosef Mendelevich; a real ‘gibor Yisrael’ (Hero of Israel), a hero of the entire Jewish nation. He and all the people who, in perpetuity, fought for the release of the Russian Jewry from the claws of Soviet Russia, under the Banner ‘Let My People Go’, are modern days heroes.
Standing Against The Tyranny Of Communism
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich and his wife, who live in Israel, were recently guests of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; he spoke to a full house about his book ‘Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story Of Faith, Courage and Survival’ and his struggle, as a prisoner of conscience, prisoner of Zion, for eleven years in the labor camps and prisons of the Soviet Union and until they let him go.
Shortly after he arrived in Israel, in 1981, he wrote his memoirs in forty days and his book was published in Hebrew thereafter. The English version followed thirty years later.
Yosef Mendelevich is a man who stood against the tyranny of Communism, and struggled to retain his Jewishness and his humanity in a system built to extinguish both. His ‘Unbroken Spirit’ is one man’s testament to the strength of the human soul; an inspiration to us all.
The saga of the Jewish dissent in Communist Russia, which started in 1964 in Riga, was one of the main components to have caused the Iron Wall to come tumbling down. The dissent was propelled by the Rumbula massacre, the two-days killing, on November 30, 1941 and December 8, 1941, of about 25,000 Jews in and on the way to Rumbula forest near Riga, Latvia, during the Holocaust; it was an extension to the Ghetto Warsaw Revolt, the follow-up to Mordechai Anielewicz heroism and Mila 18, the headquarters bunker of the Jewish resistance fighters underneath the building at ulica Mila 18 in Ghetto Warsaw.
Inner Peace And Strength v. Brutal Soviets
Rabbi Mendelevich’s demeanor is of inner peace and strength; he has this peaceful deep belief in Judaism and the Jewish nation. This very character drove the Russian Communist authorities mad for the eleven years of his incarceration.
He dared to defy the brutal Soviet establishment and for that he paid a very dear price of eleven years of imprisonment and isolation. But he was not alone. He was part of a grassroots movement, which, in many cells, in many cities all over Soviet Russia, stood up to the Communist regime that eventuated in the fall of the Communist Bloc.
“The necessity to sacrifice for the preservation of Judaism and Jewish culture and activities made a good weapon to fight for the nation of Israel,” he says and smiles as if it was fun.
Breaking The Iron Curtain
“The Soviets wanted Jews to assimilate and, we, Jews, wanted to preserve our heritage. We were the real dry bones that resurrected from the graves of the Nazi Holocaust victims. Our motto was ‘Never Again’ we will let them kill us. We need to go home, to Israel. There was no life for a Jew in Soviet Russia and we had to break out,” Rabbi Mendelevich told the audience as if it only happened a week ago.
This grassroots movement goal was to educate and bring freedom. It was a fight against the violence and cruelty of the Soviet regime.
They realized the Iron Curtain must be broken. And if it will not come from inside then they would seek outside help. Their dissent grew flesh and their movement to achieve freedom extended worldwide. Freedom loving people, everyday citizens, in many countries, fought their fight and the pressure on the Soviet regime grew stronger by the day.
Senator Henry M. Jackson, A Warrior
One of those warriors was the late senator Henry M. Jackson. He fought tirelessly for human rights in the Soviet Union, and paid attention to the pleas of Soviet dissidents who insisted that economic assistance to the Soviet Union should be conditioned upon progress on human rights and democracy.
In 1974, landmark legislation, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment was signed. This law linked the granting of most favored nation (MFN) trade status to the freedom of emigration, establishing human rights as a central concern in U.S. foreign policy. Since 1975, more than one million Jews have immigrated to Israel from Russia and the former Soviet Union and more than 500,000 refugees have immigrated to the United States from the region.
Freedom Is Not Free
Rabbi Mendelevich’s defiance of the Soviet regime and the fight for freedom cost him his freedom for a long while. He was arrested and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for harming Russian security and stealing a plane to which he and eleven other dissidents bought a ticket to fly them out of Soviet Russia. All twelve were arrested. For his Jewish activities he was sentenced to seventeen years in prison. Other dissidents even received the death sentence.
The imprisonment of Jewish dissidents made the news worldwide. It became known that Jews were arrested in Russia for being Jews, ready to die for their nation.
The prisoners were asked to write their own appeal and with world pressure mounting, the Communist government had to soften and all the death penalties were cancelled.
While languishing in Jail, in 1971 for the first time, 12,000 Jews were permitted to leave Soviet Russia to freedom. In 1972, 30,000 left and by the time he was freed, in 1981, 300,000 were out of Communist Russia and free people.
“It was important for me to wear a Kippah (Jewish skullcap) while in jail because I believed the Kippah represents Jewish values and all my dissent was about preserving Jewish values.” That cost him the permission to have his father visiting him. He never saw his father who passed away before his release. He found tricky ways not to work on Shabbat until it was revealed.
“If you give up a tad, they (the wardens who report to the authorities) are like dogs, will demand you give up more and I was not about to give them this opportunity.” For that he was punished and was sent to the punishment room and for keeping Shabbat he was sent to hard labor prison for three years.
“We take our freedom for granted. To receive punishment for the Jewish nation was a joy,” he smiles pleasantly. “To know that there is a reward for freedom is nothing but joy.”
With Patience Comes Success
Eventually, the Communists took away Rabbi Mendelevich’s citizenship and let him go to the all Jews’ motherland, Israel. For that he thanked G-d. “After all,” he says, “the Land of Israel does not come to be but with suffering…”
We need to be constantly reminded how fleeting our memory is. As for the young generation in freer Russia, they do not know what took place in their country only a quarter of a century ago. And the young generation of Israelis, hardly appreciate how much these dissident heroes fought for one thing, the dignity and respect of the legacy of Judaism.
The Soviet Union was a chapter in the long saga of the fight for freedom. Taking this for granted is weakness. As all free people today are facing the evil of Islam, its goal is to take away the freedom that generation after generation fought so hard to obtain and keep; each freedom lover needs to look into his or her inner being and say, if Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich could have been a perfect soldier in this struggle, so can I!
Do we appreciate our freedom? I hardly think so. There is a price to pay for freedom as freedom does not come by itself.
In each generation a courageous hero, or heroes, rise to defend freedom. The courage of even one conviction makes the difference.
Today the entire humanity’s common struggle is to keep our rights and freedom from being taken by destructive forces wanting to take that privilege away from us.
The universal challenge of our time today is for Jews to keep Israel strong and to preserve the continuity of the Jewish legacy.
The saying “Zion, ask for the welfare of your prisoners” resonates. Thank you Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich for eleven years you have set in jail sacrificed for every free Jew.
We make a promise to meet the challenge of each one of us, which is to be optimistic for Israel and the world. After all Am Yisrael Chai – the nation of Israel is alive.